When Hip Hop Artists Move To Jazz, Rock & Psych: Lil Yachty, Mac Miller, Yung Lean, Vic Mensa & More

Photo by Gunner Stahl

The idea of experimentation is used as a general label when an artist chooses to divert their talents to a new sonic soundscape. While experimentation is used at least once in almost every artist’s creative process, its definition remains loose. A jazz musician musing in country tropes can be considered experimental for the jazz artist, meanwhile, his take on country music can be taken as conventional and even unwarranted. Say that the same Jazz musician explores country music for more than one album, is he still experimenting or is he reinventing himself, and where does one draw that line? Take an artist like Tyler, The Creator, his discography is built on him exploring genres with no blueprint for his process understandable in the music itself. Does this make him an experimental artist? Or is he simply restarting after every album, abandoning what he knows in order to learn a new way of approaching creativity? 

It’s possible that what we see as experimentation was there all along. Contextualizing an artist’s new sound in past releases can reveal clues that this new sonic direction was their goal all along. A punk artist venturing into a more folk-inspired landscape on the surface seems like a new direction but it’s possible to look back at their style of playing or writing on a past album, it may have been their goal all along. Is this still considered experimentation or is it an artist fully realizing the environment they’re in and playing to their innate reactions, creating what feels purposeful from one moment to the next? 

All of this is to simply say, Lil Yachty released one of the most mesmerizing albums in recent memory. Earlier this year, Yachty released Let’s Start Here, a complete departure from the artist we knew as he stepped into live instrumentation and a more psychedelic rock sound overall. On the album, Yachty croons over spacious instrumentation while allowing the instruments to play a major role in the structure of his songwriting and the album as a whole. While his choice of instrumental feels like experimentation, Yachty has been dropping hints that lead up to Let’s Start Here since his hit single “One Night” put him on a world stage. We saw him release his debut album Teenage Emotions in 2017, a pop-centered album that circulated around Yachty’s love for melody and flair. The album was received poorly, to put it nicely and for the next four albums, we saw Yachty return to his rapping roots. With the wide critical acclaim and creative achievements reached on Let’s Start Here, what once was considered experimental for Yachty now all makes sense, we needed Teenage Emotions so this new album could even be possible. The ideas were all there, it was simply explored at the wrong moment. 

When an artist dives into a new sound, we become quick to label and dismiss it. If we’re not pleased with this new direction it can be labeled as a lapse in judgment from the artist, boredom of their normal approach turned into a misfire of creativity. The backlash from what we view as a “failed experiment” can be detrimental to an artist and no artist gets hit with more backlash than rappers. They are expected to work within the parameters of the genre and never toy with their vocal approach or choice of instrumental. There are countless examples of hip-hop artists reaching outside of the genre to find new inspiration to create. Glide has hand-picked some examples of this to highlight the creative moments where rappers reimagined their sound and created a new lane for themselves. 

Mac Miller

Experiment: You 

Released: 2012

The career of Pittsburgh Rapper Mac Miller is storied and filled with many different shades of experimentation. None is more of a departure from his sound than his jazz band, Larry Lovestein & The Velvet Revival. For just one EP, a mere 5 songs, Miller croons and arranges a collection of gentle jazz pieces that explore love and relationships. Miller is credited on the vocals and keys being played on the album as he explores the jazz world through an innocent lens, cultivating in the You EP. 

Yung Lean 

Experiment: Jonatan Leandoer96

Released: 2016

Known for his melodic moody style of hip-hop, Yung Lean set out to dissolve those preconceived notions with his alter ego Jonatan Leandoer96. This new side of Lean painted a clearer picture of the artist, he was more than the ascetic of his music under Yung Lean and wanted to show a more mature side to his songwriting. Across 4 studio albums, Lean uses his Leandoer96 persona to create expansive arrangements that are seemingly more sophisticated than his work as Yung Lean. This new sound allowed Lean to explore new parts of his songwriting that may not have sounded right coming from his Yung Lean persona. He’s more poetic and abstract when he creates under Jonatan Leandoer96, creating a discography that completely differs from his main focus while still painting a more full picture of the man behind the songs. 

Vic Mensa

Experiment: 93PUNX

Released: 2019

Like it was said before, rappers catch the worst flack when exploring new sonics. Upon the release of their self-titled debut, Vic Mensa and his new punk project were immediately shunned. Punk fans argued it was too rudimentary while rap fans scoffed at his singing and departure from hip-hop. In reality, Mensa created an outlet to express emotions he couldn’t find a platform for with his usual sonic choices. 93PUNX was Mensa toying with his idea of music and creating a culmination of his influences to create the sole project from his band. 

Pink Siifu

Experiment: B. Cool-Aid

Released: 2017

A sonic chameleon in his own right, Pink Siifu has made it impossible to box him in. His discography takes on many shapes and sizes but his work with producer Ahwlee under the moniker B. Cool-Aid is where he finds consistency in his output. The duo creates smooth, soul-like music that leans heavily on Siifu’s natural sense of melody and timing. His work under Pink Siifu is scattered, abstract, and beautiful while his projects under B. Cool-Aid feels more measured and sparks an interesting counterpoint to the idea of experimentation in music needing to be off-kilter. By creating more conventional music under B. Cool-Aid, Siifu is experimenting outside of himself and while the music doesn’t sound experimental, once contextualized in his career it is clear that his work with Ahwlee is meant as a relaxing release to counteract his cartoonish approach to his other projects. 


Experiment: Body Count

Released: 1992

One of the earliest examples of rappers exploring new genres, Ice-T formed his heavy metal band Body Count at an interesting point in hip-hop. The year following their debut album, the likes of Wu-Tang and Digable Planets were about to release their debut albums, seemingly changing the sonic direction of the genre as we know it. Ice-T, an established rapper in his own right, went in the opposite direction of the newfound jazz-influenced hip-hop and turned to bands like Black Sabbath to spark inspiration for his next creative endeavor. What was birthed was a thrashing, politically-driven band that continues to release music as recently as 2020. Body Count was a way for Ice-T to deliver his thoughts on the state of the country with sonics that matched his rage and anger, sonics that might’ve been difficult to achieve if he were limited to what we view as “conventional hip-hop”. 

CeeLo Green

Experiment: Gnarls Barkley

Released: 2006

The career of CeeLo Green has taken on many forms, from his start as a slick-talking, melodic appendage of the famous Goodie Mob to his more pop-focused hit “Fuck You”. Green refuses to stick to one soundscape, and his work with producer Danger Mouse houses some of the artist’s best songwriting. He replaced his southern-flavored flows with soulful vocal runs that explore a darker side of his songwriting. While most, if not all, of his solo work is more R&B than his time spent shaping the landscape of southern hip-hop, Gnarls Barkley feels the most soulful and purposeful of all his music. 


Experiment: The Foreign Exchange

Released: 2008

While the duo of Little Brother rapper Phonte and Dutch producer Nicolay debuted in 2004, it wasn’t until their sophomore effort where we start to see Phonte truly explore his voice. Their 2008 album, Leave It All Behind, featured Phonte singing, something that he’s hinted at in the past but never fully flushed out until this project. His crooning fit perfectly over the smooth production from Nicolay and a full soulful side project was born. The Foreign Exchange freed Phonte of what he knew and allowed him to explore new vocal tones and craft melodies he might have been able to achieve through rapping. 


Experiment: Yesterday’s New Quintet 

Released: 2001

Madlib’s whole career feels like one long experiment. The producer/rapper has taken on many forms, all worthy of the label “experimental” due to their push against the status quo. None was more shocking than Madlib’s deep dive into the genre of jazz that manifested itself into Yesterday’s New Quintet, which featured Madlib passing off his own playing and sampling techniques as a full jazz ensemble. While the other members of the band are simply made-up names, the music on these releases is very much real. Madlib redefines what it means for a hip-hop producer to sample jazz by piecing together full arrangements out of fragments of past jazz bands. This technique produced some of the most genre-bending jazz to come out in the last few decades and spawned countless side projects for Madlib to explore his love of jazz even more. 

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